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SANTORINI ASK THE EXPERT Thira / Santorini

Thira/Santorini
By Prof. Christos Doumas

Christos Doumas, professor of prehistoric archaeology at the University of Athens and director of excavations at Akrotiri, Santorini shows the site to the Chinese ambassador to Greece, Luo Linquan on 09.10.2010.The use of Thiraic land by the French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps for the insulation of the Suez Canal lead to the discovery of prehistoric antiquities (1866), marking the beginning of archaeological research on the Cycladic islands. Small-scale excavation research was carried out three years later (1870) by the French School of Archaeology on the site of Favatas, north of the present day Akrotiri. In 1967 Spyridon Marinatos inaugurated the excavation to the Bronze Age town of Akrotiri by order of the Archaeological Society.

The prehistoric town of Akrotiri

Thanks to the digging up of deep pits for the foundation of columns for the new cover, it is now possible for us to outline the history of the prehistoric settlement on the southern coast of the island. Established during the Neolithic period (during the 5th millennium B.C.), the small Neolithic village followed the development of the Cycladic civilization of the 3rd millennium B.C. (proto-Cycladic period) and thanks to the strategic importance of its geographical location the cosmopolitan merchant harbor was built and is today admired by many visitors.

During the mid-Cycladic period (2000-1650 B.C.), the town of Akrotiri played a significant role in the transportation of commodities an in the development of metallurgical activities, making it a pioneer of advancement not only in the Aegean, but in the Mediterranean in general. The material wealth created by these activities was used by the inhabitants of the town not only for their survival after every catastrophe caused by a destructive earthquake, but also to allow them to rebuild and decorate the town with impressive buildings. Unique works of art that were saved in the ruins of each catastrophe constitute clear evidence of this continuous development. Artistic creations displaying a wide variety of colors, picture presentations and narrative scenes on the pot engravings of the mid-Cycladic period symbolize the advancement of the great painting that would come to decorate the walls of buildings with scenes from the life of the town during the following and final part of the period (late Cycladic 1). The tremendous volcanic explosion towards the middle of the 17th century B.C., together with its sequences that affected the entire Mediterranean, suddenly broke the course of life for the people of Thira as it completely buried the island under a thick layer of volcanic deposits. However it was thanks to this explosion that a final snapshot of the advanced course of a four thousand year old unique civilization was preserved.

An aspect that reveals the liberal character an somewhat "town" mentality of the society of Akrotiri more than any other is the extensive use and development of art. Not even one of the buildings that have been uncovered up until now lacks wall painting decoration in every room. It is as if the new town had been transformed into a huge laboratory where patrons and artists competed against each other to see who could best portray their social position on the one hand, and their artistic talent on the other hand. Moreover, one can interpret the large variety of subject matter, and in particular the depiction of exotic places with unknown animals (1) and plants in the environment of the Aegean, as another source of rivalry amongst the widely traveled seamen of Akrotiri. There does not seem to be such rivalry in any other part of the Aegean.

Nevertheless, the town of Akrotiri had become a cosmopolitan merchant harbor just as the exotic objects that have emerged from its ruins confirm. The rich and widely traveled seamen competed with each other in decorating their homes with wall paintings with subject matters that portrayed their own identity. The exotic places with the flora and fauna that was unknown in the Aegean inspired admiration amongst craftsmen and manual workers of the land whilst simultaneously raising the prestige of those who contributed to the town's wealth, of the merchants and of the seamen. However, this wealth gradually transformed the character of the town's inhabitants. Any archaeologist who delves into the ruins of the town has the feeling that he is witnessing the history of a consumer society.

Christos Doumas, Professor Emeritus University of Athens, Director of the Akrotiri Archaeological Excavation






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